Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Between Iron Formalism and Playful Relativism: Five Recent Studies in Malay Writing

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Between Iron Formalism and Playful Relativism: Five Recent Studies in Malay Writing

Article excerpt

The heritage of traditional Malay literature: A historical survey of genres, writings, and literary views By VLADIMIR BRAGINSKY Leiden: KITLV Press, 2004. Pp. xiv, 890. Notes, Bibliography, Index.

John Leyden's Malay Annals With an introductory essay by VIRGINIA MATHESON HOOKER and M. B. HOOKER Kuala Lumpur: MBRAS, 2001. Pp. 81,361. Notes, Bibliography, Index.

We are playing relatives: A survey of Malay writing By HENK MAIER Leiden: KITLV Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 542. Notes, Bibliography, Index.

Bidasari: lewd of Malay Muslim culture Edited by JULIAN MILLIE Leiden: KITLV Press, 2004. Pp. 310. Notes, Bibliography, Index.

A merry senhor in the Malay world: Four texts of the Syair Sinyor Kosta Edited by A. TEEUW, R. DUMAS, MUHAMMAD HA]I SALLEH, R. TOL and M.J. VAN YPEREN Leiden: KITLV Press, 2004. Pp. x, 467. Notes, Bibliography, Index.

The study of Malay texts has a long history. Following early contacts between the West and the Malay World, travellers and priests began to collect manuscripts and other curiosa to bring back from their voyages. In Europe these objects ended up in a variety of repositories, such as local archives, private collections and libraries, and eventually museums and public libraries. Manuscript collections greatly expanded from the nineteenth century onwards when the colonial machinery accelerated the accumulation of knowledge to maintain and reinforce its hegemony in the colonies. The study of these manuscripts and the texts contained in them, however, started in the late seventeenth century when Western clerics were searching for the appropriate vocabulary to translate the Bible into Malay. Colonial scholars studied Malay texts not only to find a language for the standard imperial enterprise, but also to penetrate into the minds of the subjects, in order to understand the culture and its people. Soon they expressed their disappointment about the poor quality of the language and the unsatisfactory literary merits of the texts they studied: the language was often a mixture of Malay with some other language, Arabic most of the time, and the stories dealt with nothing but worthless fantastic adventure stories about fairies and djinns (spirits).

Manuscript collections are shaped and pre-selected by our predecessors, and if one adds to this calculation that many of these manuscripts were anonymous and difficult to date when the original was written, one can imagine the difficulties of compiling a comprehensive survey of the texts contained in an estimated number of around 10,000 existing manuscripts. A tried and tested method of categorization of different Malay texts is to group those that show significant similarities and may be dated to the same period. One of the most common and unquestioned oppositions in such a classification is the distinction between 'traditional', or the often used 'classical', and 'modern'. Such a conception is often based on a suggested or expressed underlying development in time of an 'origin' in oral tradition going through a stage of manuscript reproduction of texts to the modern technology of dissemination by printing, although Amin Sweeney and Ian Proudfoot have argued that this is untenable and new methodologies of compiling a historical overview of Malay writing are needed. (1) In this review article I will consider two recently published books that propose to discuss traditional Malay writing as an integral and orderly system, including Malay writing in its entirety, and three books that deal with a particular traditional Malay text.

A 'system' for Malay writing

In his The heritage of traditional Malay literature, Vladimir Braginsky provides a historical survey of traditional Malay writing incorporating theoretical sections, as well as descriptions and analyses of certain works. For his historical survey, Braginsky does not opt for the discussion of all the available texts, but focuses on a selection of representative texts which he examines at some length. …

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